Valancourt Books, 2023
originally published 1966
Before I start chatting away about this book, I have to say that we had a death in our family that left us mentally flat at the end of January, continuing on through February and well into most of March. It's been absolutely terrible, and as I said elsewhere, it's really only now that I'm getting back to the mindspace to be back reading and posting my thoughts. I have a bit of a post backlog that needs catching up but hope to get to everything asap.
Valancourt Books has recently published new editions of two of Celia Dale's novels, A Dark Corner and this book, A Helping Hand. I read A Dark Corner some time ago and have plans to reread it soon, but A Helping Hand is completely new to me. As I discovered, even at less than two hundred pages it's worth taking your time on this one -- if ever a novel could be labeled as a creeping slow burn, it is this one; on the flip side it's also one of the darkest books I've read in quite a while as well as a true gut puncher.
Maisie and Josh Evans are on holiday in Italy. While Josh sits and takes in the sun, Maisie brings a couple of British ladies along with her to the terrace to meet her husband and have tea. The older woman is the widow Mrs. Cynthia Fingal, the younger her niece, Lena Kemp. Mrs. Fingal had come to live with Lena, and they are also on their holiday, eager for some sun. As Maisie explains, she and Josh had needed a break after the death of "Auntie Flo," who had been living with the Evans' while being nursed by Maisie. The four get along splendidly, and decide to meet up later in Rimini. When they reconnect, Mrs. Fingal takes a definite liking to Josh, spilling forth all her woes about living with Lena, while Lena finds an audience for her problems with her aunt in Maisie. Long story short: before the respective couples return to England, it's been arranged that Mrs. Fingal will come to live with Josh and Maisie. Back at home, after having moved in as a "paying guest," Mrs. Fingal soaks up the attention paid to her by Josh, which she greatly craves and which he doesn't mind giving. At first it seems that the arrangement was a good one all around, but it isn't too long before the reader starts noticing that things are more than a wee bit off and that there's something not quite right at the Evans home. I will say no more -- to tell in this case is definitely to spoil.
On the back cover there's a blurb from the Buffalo News that most perfectly describes A Helping Hand as "A little gem of a thriller ... evil most monstrous." It's a good thing that I am one of those readers who doesn't need to find something likeable with the characters in a book because with only one or two exceptions, the people in A Helping Hand are absolutely vile. The author writes so vividly that at times I felt like I was right there in the house as an observer of the appalling wretchedness, and I had to stop reading every so often just to move out of the dark and back into the light because she is so good at creating a claustrophic atmosphere.
While the usual elements of a standard crime story will not be found in this novel, what happens here certainly falls within the realm of the genre, and given that this book was written in the 1960s, it remains extremely pertinent in our contemporary world which makes what happens even more frightening. The one and only thing I found to be on the negative side is that right after a rather stunning twist the story comes to a quick, almost rushed ending which was a bit disappointing, but in the long run it's really more about the getting there.
I can most certainly recommend this one, and my thanks to Valancourt for bringing it back into print. My advice: find a nice sunny spot for reading -- you'll need it.